Authors: Erin Kelly
The Sick Rose
About the author
Erin Kelly is a freelance journalist and lives in London.
Also by Erin Kelly
The Poison Tree
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Hodder & Stoughton
Copyright © Erin Kelly 2011
The right of Erin Kelly to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
Epub ISBN 9781848942424
Book ISBN 9781444701074
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
For my father, who taught me to read
Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
The Big Sleep
Louisa knew when she woke that she would do it that evening. The feeling had been hanging in the air for days like a gathering storm that only she could forecast. The usual signs were there: music had become unbearable, innocent conversations ticked like unexploded bombs, memories nibbled like fleas in the bedclothes at night.
And then, later that morning, she saw his face. A wisp of cloud, so low she felt she could reach up and pluck it from the sky, took the form of his profile. Fear held her still until the wind dispersed his likeness. From that moment, she was lost: his reflection replaced her own in every puddle and pane of glass. Everyone spoke with his voice. Everything in the garden seemed to shift and grow to spell out the letters of his name: that ladder leaning against the wall formed the letter A, and someone had raked the soil in the empty flowerbeds in a zigzag pattern that described an endless succession of Ms. Only the ruin stayed the same, its three remaining chimneys silhouetted against the changing sky like lightning trees. As morning turned to noon, the sun passed through its glassless windows, marking the hours like some huge, ancient clock. Louisa, knowing what the night would bring, wanted the day to last forever; but it was a blur of administration and conversation, and passed too quickly.
She had been the first one on site and was the last to leave. She made sure the greenhouse door was pulled to and, identifying each unmarked key at a glance, locked up the cabins. She felt her way along the thick cable for the weatherproof switch and, with a tiny pressure, the site was in darkness. There was only a weak moon and she used her torch as she crossed the rubbled surface that would soon be a car park, passed through the thicket and finally, staying parallel to the boundary wall, walked the path only she had trodden. The feeling rose inside her like an itch she had to scratch. This is the last time, she promised herself. The
last time. There had been so many.
Once inside, Louisa flicked on the little kettle out of habit, then turned it off before it had a chance to boil; she would not be drinking tea this evening. She busied herself with the ritual of lighting first the oil lamps and then the candles: some of the large ones had burnt almost to stubs and she had to put her hand right down inside the glass jars and vases to light them, scorching her knuckles as the wick took the flame. She double checked all the windows, pulling the thick yellow curtains across so that no one would see. Who would be watching her, anyway?
She sat on the edge of the bed for a minute or two, letting the heater warm the room, and gave herself a chance to back out. But then she was on her knees, reaching under the bed for the bottle. Her fumbling fingers soon closed on the cold glass; it was sticky where the cap met the neck, and wore a collar of fine grey fluff. Louisa winced. How long since she had done it? Spring? Yes, she realised – she had resisted all summer long. No wonder the urge was so strong now. She could forget about him in the months when there was as much work as there was light and physical exhaustion kept her asleep all night. But this was September, the hinge of the year, and the evenings were pulling up short. No matter how early she got up or how hard she worked, there was no escaping the fact that she was forced through her front door a little earlier every evening, each day bringing a few more minutes of that seething silence. The empty hours would stack up as the weeks progressed, and one dark, quiet hour was more than enough. She uncapped the bottle and swigged, the spirit punishing her throat. Now the exorcism could begin.
There wasn’t much vodka, but that was fine: she only needed it to give her courage to drink the whiskey. Her legs already unsteady, she climbed onto her bed and reached into the overhead cupboard. The deceptively small door panel concealed a space that went back for two or three feet, and she lost her arm up to the shoulder as she groped around in the carefully arranged stacks of bags and boxes. Eventually her fingers closed on the handle of the right bag. She yanked it with such force that she fell back on the bed, the plastic carrier landing on her lap. A second later, the whiskey bottle rolled out. She tipped the other contents of the bag out like a child upending a Christmas stocking, although there were no surprises in here. She spread her things about her on the quilt, wondering where to begin, aware of a quickening at her throat and wrists and between her breasts. She started with the little green phial of vetiver oil, simply unscrewing the lid and inhaling. It was still a quarter full. Every year the smell got a little fainter and staler but it had been his, he had actually used this, and she could never replace her relic with a new, fresh bottle. She dabbed it on the skin behind her ears, remembering how he had anointed himself with the oil, his thumb pressing it onto his neck and wrists. Essential oils reacted differently with everyone’s skin so she would never quite be able to recreate his exact scent, but this would have to do.
The whiskey bottle had not been his, but it was his brand, an obscure, old man’s Irish whiskey that no one else their age had even heard of, let alone drank. Hard to find even in London, even then, so getting hold of it now was a labour of leftover love. Pressing the bottle to her lips felt like his kiss and she closed her eyes as though he were really there. She drank as much as she could bear to and shakily placed the bottle next to a candle, where it became an amber lantern.
Bringing her only mirror in from the shower room, Louisa got to work on her face, refreshing the dried-out cosmetics with drops of olive oil from the tiny pantry. The eyeshadow was called Blackpool and the lipstick Black Cherry, and both contained strong pigments intended for supple young complexions. She pulled her hair up to one side, ruthlessly fastening it with a clip so that everything on the right-hand side of her face lifted by half an inch. Now her face looked lopsided. She tousled her hair and swept it over the left side of her face in a long, messy fringe. That was better. She held up the dress: it always looked smaller than she remembered. Had she really gone out in something that short? There was the usual moment of breath-holding tension as she tried it on and the usual relief when it still fitted. If anything, it was looser on her now than it had been then. Blue crushed velvet that used to cling now hung, and if her breasts did not fill it out as once they had, her stomach did not protrude either. She pulled a face; in the dusky glass an approximation of her teenage self pouted back at her. It’s not fair, she couldn’t help thinking. He will
look young. She reached for the bottle, fumbled and nearly knocked it over onto the bedclothes. She was drunk, on the way to being very drunk. She drank some more.
Louisa peered about in the gloom. For a few moments, she had no idea where the television had gone. Then she remembered that it was serving as a pedestal for a bunch of Chinese lanterns she had dried in the summer. She removed the vase of flowers and lifted the draped blanket to reveal the tiny set with its integrated video player. It, too, was smaller than she remembered. The cathode and tape combination had been cutting-edge technology when her parents had bought it for her. There was no aerial and the remote control was long lost. Would it even still work? She felt a flicker of panic as she calculated how many months it had been since it was last turned on. She reunited the plug with the socket and slackened with relief as the screen came to life.
The videotape marked
was, as far as she knew, the only one of its kind in the world. She gripped it tightly, almost daring herself to crush it. It would be so easy to hook her little finger into the body of the cassette and unspool the tape. She knew she ought to destroy it. With every passing season she grew more confident that she would never be discovered – but if she was, if things ever caught up with her, to be found in possession of it would be disastrous. Yet she was powerless to stop herself inserting the cassette and pressing the play button.
She sat through the familiar adverts in their usual sequence: the small-hours commercials for those wavering between brands of coffee and cigars, 0898 numbers for the horny and lonely, the prelude to some long-forgotten Channel 4 show that had been the tape’s initial recording. The broadcast footage was soon scratched out by an amateur recording. When the camera closed in on him with its wobbly zoom, she felt the same frisson as the first time she’d seen him. He raised his hand to push his hair out of his eyes; you could just about see the threads where his black jumper was unravelling at the wrist, and the lyrics scrawled on the inside of his arm. Later, when they knew each other, he would tell Louisa that if he was nervous he sometimes forgot the words he had taken hours to write. Next were a couple of other recordings, just as badly lit, sound equally distorted, but they were Louisa’s favourites because she had been there. There she was at the first gig in the blue dress; there she was at the second, standing directly in front of the camera so the top of her head was in shot throughout. He had appeared to be singing to the camera although Louisa knew it had all been for, and to, her. It was proof that, whatever had happened between them afterwards, at that time he had wanted her as much as she wanted him. This, she acknowledged, was the real reason she didn’t destroy the tape.